Despite what everyone thought, he wasn’t thin-blooded, wasn’t prone to chills or disliked the cool air conditioning continuously running inside all of the buildings – even the transportation. No, he never really noticed the temperature until it became extreme. He didn’t mind being a little hot or a little cold - discomfort was something to be acknowledged and then ignored. Spend any regular amount of time crammed inside a tiny cockpit and one learned to focus on other things, on those that you could control or those that had more of an impact on your life. Feeling a little cold was inconsequential.
It was because of all the time he spent in a cramped cockpit that he wore the jacket almost constantly when he was back on the ground. He missed the feeling of being enclosed, of his world being narrowed down to that tiny space – one of the staff psychologists had found that view of his to be rather amusing, considering the fact that he was flying through an endless amount of skies. No, what mattered was being nestled inside of Yukikaze. In being strapped into tightly, body held immobile except for his limbs and head. It felt like being embraced, being so close to Yukikaze that he was one with the plane. He’d felt much the same with his other planes over the years, but not to the extreme he did with Yukikaze. They truly were one. So he was loathe to remove the jacket, despite this world’s heat, because he retained some of that sense of being enveloped, of being restrained by one he trusted. With the jacket on and his hat pressed snug on his head, when he needed to escape this flat, too expansive world he could close his eyes and imagine he was snug in Yukikaze’s cockpit. Or at least try, because nothing felt as good as the actual thing.
So he ignored the constant comments about him being cold, or the weather not being ‘hot enough for ya?’, as one of the other pilots always asked him. His jacket was old and worn, practically held together with duct tape in some sections, but it was a comforting weight on his shoulders, around his back and chest, and he didn’t mind the extra warmth. He would just bide his time until he could shed the jacket and climb inside Yukikaze.
"I think it’s about time for you to retire that jacket."
The amused voice shook him from his reverie, jolted him back to the reality that he was on his way home for the night, to eat and try to rest before he could be allowed to pilot Yukikaze once again. He looked at the person who was talking to him and was surprised to see that Major Bukhar had joined him on the station’s platform.
He didn’t know what to make of this man. The major didn’t seem to mind being stuck with another hard case, didn’t seem to mind that he just wanted to be left alone to fly and not be bothered with the endless regulations that went hand in hand with the military. "Yes, sir," was all he said, quietly at that, to this person he was still so unsure about even after being here for almost a month. Major Bukhar wasn’t like any of his past superior officers, and he didn’t feel as distant toward him as he had with the other men. No, not distant at all.
The major smiled, a flash of white amidst golden skin and neatly trimmed hair. He reminded Rei of the sun, and sometimes he had to look away from the man, half afraid of his vision being compromised by the major’s golden-ness and bright flashes. All too often, Buhkar’s image would linger before his eyes, just like the sun indeed, even after he turned away.
"Call me ‘Jack’. We’re both off-duty, and there’s no sense in standing on formality all the way out here. This isn’t Earth, after all."
"Yes, s-… Jack." He was almost surprised how easy it was to ignore the formality, and something perilously close to the sensation he felt when he climbed inside of Yukikaze and fastened himself in fluttered in his stomach. He couldn’t understand why Buhkar made him feel this way, why he didn’t mind someone else standing so close to him, didn’t have a problem opening his mouth and continuing this conversation, a thing he usually studiously avoided. "It was a quiet day today, wasn’t it?"
Buhkar – Jack – snorted and shrugged his shoulders. "The JAM will make up for it in the next day or two, just you wait and see. They don’t like to ignore us for very long, it seems, and when they do, things turn very bad." He ran a hand through his hair, tousling the strands and closing his eyes briefly until his hand fell back down to his side. "You’ll see some action soon, you and Yukikaze."
Rei stood there and watched Jack’s movements, listened to his gruff voice. Something about him always drew his attention in, made Jack into a person not to be ignored like almost everyone else. Maybe it was because he talked about Yukikaze as if it was more than just a hunk of very expensive equipment, because he didn’t mock Rei over his devotion to the plane.
"We’ll be ready… Jack." Oddly enough, the name was much easier to say than the man’s rank, and he felt another hint of the flutter when Jack smiled and had to hug his jacket closer to him.
Jack reached out, slowly, and patted him on the shoulder two times and then squeezed. His hand rested there for several seconds, and even though Rei usually hated being touched, he didn’t mind its presence. Right there, one of the straps of his harness would rest, squeezing him in much of the same way when Yukikaze accelerated slightly. Jack’s hand felt right, and he twitched as it slowly released him and fell back to Jack’s side.
"I know you will," Jack said after a moment and shifted a little closer as more people joined then on the platform. He found himself shifting toward Jack as well, unwilling to stand close to any of the strangers eager to go home or to another station. "You really do need to get a new jacket, I think this one’s just about had it." Jack’s hand reached out again, and after a faint tug held up a piece of worn tape for him to see. "Pretty soon, there’s gonna be more tape than leather."
He hugged the jacket to his chest, unwilling to talk about its impending demise. "It’ll hold together for a bit longer." He ducked his head and stared at the edge of the platform through the fall of his bangs.
Jack chuckled and shifted closer, stood shoulder to shoulder with him. "I hope so. It’s difficult to find leather goods of that quality out here, and when you do you better be willing to spend a fortune. You’ll pay at least four times more for something like that jacket in any of the shops here – if you ever find one, which I seriously doubt."
He just nodded his head twice, uncertain what he was supposed to say. But one of the best things he’d learned about Jack was the man didn’t mind his silences, didn’t take it personally if he didn’t answer back or talk all the time. So they both stood there in comfortable silence as people milled all around them, and he found his chin slowly lifting until he was staring straight ahead – or glancing out of the corner of his eye at Jack, who was smiling slightly and seemed lost in his thoughts.
There was a chime informing the waiting people that a train was about to arrive. He looked up at the display screen and noticed it wasn’t the one he was waiting for, but knew it to be Jack’s. "Good night, sir."
"Jack, it’s Jack," he said almost absentmindedly. Then he shook a little, as if a shiver had run down his spine, and turned to grin at Rei. "You have any plans for the night?"
The grin became wider – but the expression in Jack’s eyes was a little unsure. "I’m in the mood for pizza and some beer, but don’t want to end up eating the entire thing and drinking a six-pack all by myself. Why don’t you join me? My treat."
He shook his head, too stunned by the offer to say anything. Jack’s smile faded, and then the train finally arrived and the door slid open. Jack pressed against him as people left the car, and for a moment he felt that closeness, that security of being strapped into the cockpit instead of the unease associated with being jostled about by strangers. Then Jack stepped into the car, leaving him bereft.
He found himself missing that closeness, which would be denied him until tomorrow morning when he could once again climb into Yukikaze, and he found himself taking a step forward, into the car as well. Jack stared at him in surprise and he saw another smile, this one more confidant than the last, before he ducked his head and mumbled that he was hungry after all.
"Great!" Jack said loudly, and once again clapped him on the shoulder, in the exact same spot as before. His hand lingered there as the train pulled out of the station. "Uhm, just one thing. My place is a bit of a mess. I hope you don’t mind. I can promise you that nothing will jump out of the rubble and attack you, at least." Rei found himself looking up and smiling, just the slightest bit, at the joke. Jack’s eyes widened, and the hand on his shoulder tightened. They both stood there like that for several minutes.
He showed up for work with his arms folded against his chest and his hat tugged down a little lower than usual. This morning he did indeed feel cold and noticed the way everyone stared after him, as if he’d grown an extra head or something.
"Hey, Rei!" was all the warning he had before a large hand clamped down on his shoulder, but he didn’t tense at all or start, just looked beside him and tried to dredge up a sliver of a smile. "I almost didn’t recognized you without the coat," Jack said, his hand slow to fall away.
"I’m afraid it finally fell apart," he said quietly. He’d been filled with sadness ever since the leather coat had practically disintegrated on his way home from Jack’s apartment last night, and craved the encompassing closeness of Yukikaze’s cockpit. But right now… now he missed the tight grip on his shoulder and leaned closer to Jack. He heard his friend’s breath catch and felt that flutter inside that always seemed to hover about when Jack was near. He wanted to shiver with… something, a reaction that happened more and more often as he spent time with Jack.
"Ah." Jack’s voice sounded strained, but there was a thoughtful look on his face. "I’m sorry to hear that. I know you loved that thing."
He nodded, even if he was unsure if ‘love’ was the proper emotion. Certainly he missed the feel of the worn leather around him, the weight of the coat hanging on his shoulders.
"Ah well, we should have a proper send off for the thing," Jack said, his voice loud and boisterous. "When we get off duty tonight, we’ll pick up some food and beer. Such a loyal jacket needs a wake at least, don’t you think?"
The flutter returned at the thought of spending the evening with Jack. He ducked his head and whispered ‘yes’, for once his mind not focused on thoughts of Yukikaze and flight but instead whirling on being alone with Jack, together in his friend’s messy apartment, with the way the air seemed heavy with… with something that made his stomach flutter once more, that made him wish Jack would press close to him and rest his hands on his shoulders. He didn’t understand these emotions, he only knew that Jack was the cause, and they were leading somewhere.
"Good." Jack gave his shoulder another squeeze, and this time his fingers brushed along the nape of Rei’s neck, usually covered by his old coat, and made him shiver again. Then someone called out his friend’s name, and Jack came to a stop while he continued on, to Yukikaze.
A little tired from his shift, his body still adjusting to normal gee even after a long hot soak in the showers, he opened his locker for his clothes and was surprised to see something blue hanging from one of the hooks. He reached for the item, the weight of the blue and light grey leather making his arm drop, unexpected as it was. He held the jacket in front of him, noting the fact that it was a little worn but in excellent condition, that it was a little bigger than his last one. As he heard footsteps approach, he turned it around in his hands – and the breath caught in his throat. Across the back of the jacket was a very familiar design in red and gold and white – a dragon, the same as Jack’s tattoo.
"Go on, try it on."
He looked up to find Jack leaning against a nearby locker, a guarded expression on his face. "I’ve had it for ages but never was much for heavy jackets, especially after moving here. Since it doesn’t really fit anymore and you’re out a coat, I thought…." His gruff voice trailed off, and there was something in his eyes that made Rei’s insides flop, made him shiver and crush the jacket with his hands. "Go on." Jack said the words as if they were a challenge, and he thought he saw longing in his friend’s eyes.
His hands shaking, they slowly released their tight grip on the leather. He stared at the embroidered dragon for a moment and thought about how the one on Jack’s arm would flex and squirm as Jack moved, as if it was alive. He’d always longed to touch it, to see if it would react to him, and now he’d be wearing it across his back. There was symbolism here; Jack’s jacket, Jack’s dragon on his body for everyone to see, and it made him pause – but only for a second. Still damp from the shower and dressed only in a towel, he slid into the jacket and sighed every so softly as it settled on his body. So heavy and warm… he felt almost as if he was strapped into Yukikaze for a moment and relished its weight, much more than his old coat’s. The flutter settled, leaving him languid and more at ease than he’d ever been before while on the ground, and as Jack’s hand rested on his shoulder, he felt himself smile. It wasn’t the same as being inside Yukikaze… but it felt good, felt natural, and he felt more content than he ever had while outside a plane’s cockpit. He looked at his friend and the smile on Jack’s face, the emotions shining in his eyes snatched away his breath just as if Yukikaze had suddenly accelerated.
"I’m glad it fits," Jack said after a few seconds. "It’s yours now. Why don’t you get dressed so we can go mourn the demise of your old coat, okay?" But Jack’s hand lingered a little longer, until they heard someone’s laughter ricochet inside the small locker room, heard the door slam shut behind the men entering the room.
"Thank you," he said in a voice louder than usual, and slid off the jacket with a surprising amount of regret. Jack held it for him as he changed, a close presence leaning against the next locker, and he felt the weight of his friend’s regard just as heavily as the jacket, but welcomed the sensation. He knew that something had changed here, that ownerships had been exchanged. The jacket was indeed his and he’d wear it with pride – would wear Jack’s dragon with pride. And they’d go back to Jack’s apartment and let things run the course they’d taken this past month, and the wait between flying in Yukikaze would be that much more bearable.
Jack had given him his dragon – but to wear while he was on the ground. There was an understanding in that symbolism that allowed him to slip the heavy coat back on once he was dressed and follow his…friend out of the locker room and toward a messy apartment. Away from the flight hanger, but for once he didn’t mind.
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